The Tree of Life is maddening, exhilarating, gorgeous, ponderous, insightful, pretentious, epic, shallow, beautiful, and strange — essentially the apotheosis of Terrence Malick’s entire career. It will divide audiences like few films have in recent years.

The movie, which exists as a metaphysical meditation and a lyrical poem, focuses – at a microcosmic level – on the story of Jack, a jaded, middle aged man (played by Sean Penn) scarred by the memories of an oppressive upbringing by his father (Brad Pitt), as well as the untimely death of his younger brother.

Like all Malick movies, however, the plot is simply window dressing for the grand philosophical questions the director has been chasing for nearly four decades: the struggle between nature and grace, the duality of man, the meaning of life, and a sense of understanding and reconciliation amidst the chaos and suffering of it all.

While the film makes several missteps and is saddled with an inelegant conclusion, the sheer audacity and vision of a director willing to tackle these weighty metaphysical questions in such an unconventional, non-mainstream manner must be applauded.

The Tree of Life opens and closes with a shot of a beautiful, unearthly light that could very well represent the light of “God.” It then proceeds with a Biblical quote from Job, the prophet whose righteousness was tested through suffering. Would Job renounce God if He was to test him with calamity, or would he remain true and steadfast in his conviction?

The calamity in this case is the tragic death of Jack’s younger brother, who died in combat at the age 19 many years ago. Through several voiceovers – the primary dialogue in a movie that communicates mostly through images – we hear characters’ hushed prayers, laments and frustrated questions to an omnipresent (but distant) God.

In response to her son’s death, the mother asks and prays, “Why?”

Malick’s visual answer to her question is undoubtedly one of The Tree of Life’s most audacious and confounding sequences, itself a throwback to that other frustrating, brilliant visionary recluse, Stanley Kubrick, and his masterpiece 2001. The audience embarks on a gorgeous, wordless cinematic tour of the history of creation, from the majestic beauty of the cosmos to the violence of the Big Bang to the first stirrings of life in the primordial soup to dinosaurs walking the Earth to a small asteroid colliding with the planet.

The random death of one young man seems trivial when measured against the balance of time, space, evolution and the origin of life.

Yet, it is also a random act of violence, a fortuitous eruption, that somehow inspired the entirety of creation on Earth.

Malick, a deeply thoughtful director who studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford, reflects on the interconnectedness and interdependence of all living things, no matter how miniscule or magnificent. The death of a brother lingers profoundly in the life of his emotionally damaged sibling just as the Big Bang reverberates throughout the cosmos, and a relatively small meteorite crash instigates a cataclysmic ripple of death for the dinosaurs.

This belabored, but nonetheless fascinating, rumination on the duality and interconnectedness of life is further engendered in Jack by his mother, played by an ethereal Jessica Chastain, who teaches her children that there are two ways through life: the way of grace or the way of nature. The former, personified by the mother, loves unconditionally and accepts suffering and humiliation, while the latter, personified by Pitt, seeks only to please itself, have others please it, and finds reasons to be unhappy despite being surrounded by blessings.

In his National Geographic segment, Malick visits this theme during the age of the CGI dinosaurs. A large dinosaur, upon witnessing a smaller, wounded animal, triumphantly and inexplicably plants his foot on its head. In the grand scheme of life, per Malick, nature’s brute strength and cruelty are embedded in our very DNA.

A majority of the film centers on Jack’s childhood relationship with his parents and two younger siblings.  Brad Pitt, with his tense, square jaw and simmering intensity, conveys an imposing  presence in the lives of the children as a bitter disciplinarian who values power and strength as a means to success. Continue reading

Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan: “I Saved My Country From Nuclear Blackmail”

In this week’s Newsweek, the “father” of the Pakistani bomb on why Pakistan deserves to have nuclear weapons, and why we shouldn’t be afraid.


Pakistan’s nuclear program has always been a target for Western propaganda and false accusations. I would like to make it clear that it was an Indian nuclear explosion in May 1974 that prompted our nuclear program, motivating me to return to Pakistan to help create a credible nuclear deterrent and save my country from Indian nuclear blackmail.

Article - Khan NuclearA.Q. Khan in 2009. (Farooq Naeem / Getty Images)

After 15 years in Europe with invaluable experience in enrichment technology, I came to Pakistan in December 1975 and was given the task of producing nuclear weapons by then–prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. On Dec. 10, 1984, I informed Gen. Zia-ul-Haq that we could explode a device at a week’s notice, whenever he so desired. We achieved credible nuclear capacity by the second half of the ’80s, and the delivery system was perfected in the early ’90s. For a country that couldn’t produce bicycle chains to have become a nuclear and missile power within a short span—and in the teeth of Western opposition—was quite a feat.

The question of how many weapons are required for credible deterrence against India is purely academic. India is engaged in a massive program to cope with the nonexistent threat posed by China and in order to become a superpower. India doesn’t need more than five weapons to hurt us badly, and we wouldn’t need more than 10 to return the favor. That is why there has been no war between us for the past 40 years.

I have little knowledge of the present status of our program, as I left Kahuta, Pakistan’s main nuclear facility, 10 years ago. As the pioneer of the program, my guess is that our efforts have been to perfect the design, reduce the size of the weapons to fit on the warheads of our missile systems, and ensure a fail-safe system for their storage. A country needs sufficient weapons to be stored at different places in order to have a second-strike capability. But there is a limit to these requirements.

India and Pakistan understand the old principle that ensured peace in the Cold War: mutually assured destruction. Continue reading

Omar Ahmad: Muslim, American, Cowboy Boot Aficianado (1965-2011)

Omar Ahmad


Religion Dispatches

Last week we spoke of Osama Bin Laden, a man who represented no one and offered nothing but hate. How many other people died that day, their death unnoticed and unmarked?

This week, we lost a real Muslim leader, a man who offered hope, compassion, love, humor, and most importantly, friendship. Omar Ahmad, the Mayor of San Carlos, California, was a real American leader who was also Muslim. He represented more than himself; he was the voice of his community—a community comprised of all the people who came into contact with him. As mayor he had constituents; he was also a man who had many friends. We can only begin by listing the traits that made him a 21st-century Hemingway.

Omar Ahmed: Mayor of San Carlos; lover of fine cigars; spinner of great yarns; Silicon Valley entrepreneur; passionate aviator; mountain climber; cowboy boot aficionado; leader; visionary; friend.

Death did not take him today; instead, we prefer to say that he was just too much for life.

He would chide us that we should never speak of “Muslim” and “non Muslim.” He said, “I prefer ‘Neighbor.’”

Omar was quintessentially American. Born of immigrant parents from Pakistan, he helped to shape the technological world in which we live. He worked at high-level position at Grand Central (now Google Voice), Netscape, and Napster. He once said that when the order came to close Napster as a file sharing service, he was the one who had to “pull the plug.”

Despite his technological wizardry, he was firmly committed to building his community the old-fashioned way, by getting to know you. He says on his website, “If you ever have questions regarding who I am or what I believe, please feel free to ask me. It will be through open dialog that we will get to know each other!” He leveraged his good-natured spirit in politics, and was elected to the City Council of San Carlos, and from there, to the Mayor’s Office. In that position, he did what every American mayor does, he fought with the Firemen’s Union.

In all his activities, he remained committed to his faith. He helped nurture and train Muslim-American leadership. He was a behind-the-scenes mover, who used his vast entrepreneurial experience to make sure the next generation would be able to build real, lasting community relationships with our neighbors. We admired him, notbecause he was Muslim, but because being Muslim made him do admirable things.

When we think of Muslim-America, we think of Omar. There was no distinction for him between his faith and his country, and he sought to do right by both. When we think of role-models for our community, we think of Omar. He gave only what was best—and he gave it everyday for everyone, regardless of their color or religion.

But he was not bigger than life. Despite all his accomplishments, he was humble, grounded, full of conviction, congenial, and approachable. But his spirit, energy, relentless curiosity, and fierce intellect could not be anchored. What else can be said about a man who was an avatar of passion in gaudy cowboy boots?

He is a mensch to be remembered. In ten years, his passing will be remembered as the greatest loss to Muslim American leadership in 2011. He lived more in 46 years than most of us do in three lifetimes.

Most people leave us behind. He left us moving forward.


Land of Confusion

by Zakira Souriya

As the Syrian Revolution of March 15th nears its two month anniversary, every day brings the more of the same: more dead, injured and vanished; more broken promises of reform; and more silence from Damascus and Aleppo. Instead of uniting the Syrian people against a ruthless regime, the blood-drenched revolution has split the country into factions. These factions are not along the supposed sectarian, “demographic” lines drawn by the Western media or even the Syrian President himself: Sunni, Alawite, Kurdish, Christian, Armenian, Druze, etc. Rather, the groups are far more divisive and treacherous, split along class and geographic boundaries that were once a celebration of diversity but are now like scars ripping open at the seams:

The Fearful: They are mainly the middle class, urban majority of Syrians who are willing to swallow the bitter pill of dictatorship in favor of stability. These people survived the brutality of the father’s regime and they consider the son’s minor economic (and self-serving) reforms during the past 11 years as good enough, and even generous. The older generation, knows there is a bloody price for freedom (that they are not willing to pay) and the younger generation, while not as scared or scarred as their parents, are content with the cell phones (tapped), internet (by proxy), and private schools and universities (overpriced and unaccredited). Continue reading

“Paper Tigers”: An Asian American Man responds

The New York Magazine just published Wesley Yang’s  lengthy, fascinating and sure to be controversial piece on Asian-American males. It’s entitled “Paper TigersWhat happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?”

Here, Constant Gaw, a second generation Asian American, shares his reaction.

Speaking plainly, I was floored by Yang’s piece.  This is a conversation-starter that needed to happen.

I can absolutely relate to what he writes about, with the exception that I’ve taken a more optimistic path through life, rather than dwell in bitterness.  Everything he’s talking about here actually happens: the social difficulties, work dynamics, difficulties with women – this shit is for real.  I’ve hit each of these elements at various points in my life, and I’ve realized that any success I’ve had in those arenas has been due to an overcoming of the natural tendencies I carried into adulthood.  Now, I want to be clear that I’m not writing to vilify the tiger-mothers or dragon-ladies or whatever other idiotic, zodiac-appropriate term is in vogue.  Anyone that beats their child for getting an “A-” on a paper or demands nothing less than aneurysm-inducing levels of success will not get a gold star from me.  But, away from the extremes of Asian parenting is a relevant, shared experience and I think Yang’s article touched on it.

I should clarify that while I don’t typify the “tiger-raised” Asian-American by any means, the roots of cultural tradition indeed run fucking deep, and they get expressed in ways that can be quite undetectable to the self at times.  Learning to socialize well with a broad spectrum of white people was a long process, and in many ways is still something I’m working on these days.  That may seem like a bizarre thing to read if you know me, but the truth is that with every stage of your life as a minority, you expose yourself to racial dynamics that are slightly different from the last stage.  What worked before may not be as relevant in the present moment, and unlearned socializations can emerge later to assert their significance.

Dating, too, was something that only happened after I had acclimated enough to a broader culture.  Even today, despite having dated primarily non-Asian women, I often still feel some measure of intimidation when approaching them.  Why?  Because it’s hard to overcome the feeling that you’re at an inherent cultural and perceptual disadvantage, and that messes with your confidence.  It’s already difficult enough for a “tiger-child” to learn to be socially confident, but it’s a whole another business to have to project that onto someone that has already bought into the stereotype of your social ineptitude.

Recently, I started dating a Chinese woman who also defies the tiger-child template.  Surprisingly, she, too, subjected me to the sort of instant stereotyping more often associated with white preconception, except in reverse.  Because I was affable, expressive and playful, she immediately thought of me as a very white-washed dude.  After we went on a few more dates, she began to see other sides of me that complicated that perception; I actually had to “earn” back my Asian-ness, in a sense.  It’s amazing how widely the stereotypes of Asian culture, rightly earned or not, have been disseminated.

The corporate aspect of the Asian-American experience is also something that I’ve become a lot more conscious of over the last few years.  I, too, naively believed that I had found an industry that functioned as closely as possible to a pure meritocracy and would be devoid of all politics, but of course I was incorrect.  While I’ve had some frustrations, I’ve ultimately adopted a more pragmatic view of office jockeying.  Being “forced” to socialize in the work environment and assert yourself in ways that feel unnatural may be something to rightly rail against, but those approaches are ultimately successful because humans are humans and there are certain dynamics that hold true and operate the way they do regardless of your feelings on the matter.  Rather that sulk, I strive to adopt the patterns of behavior that are strategic, while consciously avoiding transformation into a douchebag (or, at least, into someone that feels quite divorced from who I truly am).

After reading Yang’s article, it became clear to me that the most relevant debate isn’t whether or not the essential dynamics he describes are true, but rather how we confront them.  He, for better or worse, is the consummate artist: isolated, misunderstood, and reveling in the righteousness that comes from maintaining that purity.  I actually completely relate to him when he describes the patterns he sees and says, “Fuck this, I refuse to give in.”  He’s an angry, bitter idealist.  A part of me wants to live like him, but I ultimately know that’s not a route that leads to happiness or the kind of fulfillment I seek.

Just as the less-deserving alpha-male prospers in life by knowing which rules to break and which to follow, so must the artist learn to part with his idealism (at least on occasion), or risk being devoured by a inescapable singularity of his own making.  He’ll look glorious while doing so, but no-one will ever see it.  And then he’ll be gone.

Constant Gaw is a video game designer living in Southern California and is perfectly happy with the way his tiger mamma raised him.